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The novel takes its name from a mathematical category, the remainder. A remainder is what’s left over. Typically, we think of a remainder as waste, as unused excess. Unwanted books, clothes, and CDs go in a remainder bin. We treat remainders as nullities, as zeros, but this leftover quantity is never zero; it always remains, positive or negative, and must be considered when accounting for the sum.

In Remainder, the victim of an accident, an unnamed 30 year old man, receives an enormous settlement and uses it to create spaces and events from his imagination that feel realer, that have a stronger emotional resonance, than the life he led before the accident.

Amnesia Fiction
At first he suffers from amnesia. When his memories do return, it is without emotional attachment, they are like “installments of a soap opera.” The literary subtexts of amnesia are all handled by McCarthy in a perfunctory manner; the traumatic event, the quest for recovery, the fragility of self, and the fantasy of escape all become self-reflexive literary elements in the narrator’s story. Estrangement from reality is the starting point for his active identification with his artificial creations. His singular obsession, to create a seamless fictional reality and then occupy the sole autonomous space within it, fills the bulk of the novel.

Tom McCarthy

Though he is British, Tom McCarthy’s first novel is very French, or more specifically, Remainder belongs to the lineage of French novels embraced by America. Every review notes his debt to the young Sartre of Nausea, but the novel is steeped in the whole literary tradition of France.

Previously, McCarthy worked with the archly-ironic avant-garde group, International Necronautical Society. The INS shares Remainder’s preoccupation with using artificial space to realize abstract, immanent realities, and with the amoral, fascistic, and murderous aspects of extreme aestheticism.

The first INS manifesto declares:

1. That death is a type of space, which we intend to map, colonise and, eventually, inhabit.

2. That there is no beauty without death, its immanence. We shall sing death’s beauty; that is beauty.

Beneath this pastiche (blank parody) of Breton (“Beauty will be convulsive or not at all”), Marinetti (“War, the worlds only hygiene,” “Poetry must be a violent assault against the unknown forces in order to overcome them and prostrate them before men.”), and other leaders of the historical avant-garde, is a sincere program that aims at the redefinition of space, of what constitutes, “a space” as an analogy for experience.

Consistent with this objective is a phenomenological question about the self’s relationship to a virtualized, monetized world of objects and people that can be assigned flat, Brechtian roles. By flattening the other to pure two-dimensionality, the narrator’s experiments with imaginary fully-aestheticized spaces are acts of self-recognition. This is signaled by the curious tingling sensations that surge through him when fully immersed in his constructs.

The novel begins:

“About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits. That’s it, really: all I can divulge. Not much, I know.”

(The first chapter of Remainder is available online at NYT:

A psychiatrist would say his voice has low affect, a symptom of some form of disassociative disorder. He shows no attachment to his past, no emotional connection to the people around him, just a singular obsession with staging elaborate scenes, with constructing new space, and molding individuals into flat masks to serve his roles.

Neo-Sartrean Hero
The only emotion he grabs onto or experiences with any vividness is his reaction at certain moments to certain details of his stagings. This is a familiar borrowing from Nausea, but whereas nausea is the Sartrean response to contact with “complete” objects, things in-themselves, McCarthy’s hero feels a curious tingling elation while scrutinizing details of his creations. Functionally, it appears to invert Sartre’s formula, while still working within its confine.

Sartre divides Being into, “in-itself,” “for-itself,” and “for-others.” Human beings are fundamentally being “for-itself;” but can be lured into behaving in bad faith, as being “in-itself” or “for others.” Individuals who do not embrace freedom seek to be “for others;” that is, an object of another’s subjectivity. McCarthy’s hero takes Sartre’s distinction in a Nietzschean direction. His protagonist actually seems to abhor the presence of individuals not playing roles for him.

Huysmans and Decadence


McCarthy also owes a debt to Huysmans’s decadent masterpiece, A Rebours (translated alternately as, “Against Nature,” or “Against the Grain”). Like Remainder, A Rebours focuses on an aesthete with inherited wealth but no one to inherit it who retreats into a private aesthetic world that transgresses accepted morality as well as humanity. The story culminates in the decadent hero’s complete inversion of biological processes, by ingesting food through his anus and voiding the waste through his mouth. At the time, Huysmans wrote his novel, Western Europe was undergoing dramatic transformations. The fin de siecle era, which he wrote during, depicted a culture in decay.

McCarthy’s aesthetic project is both a retreat and an insurgency; a portrait that captures the schizoidal malaise of contemporary westerners. Our uniqueness must be as overvalued by others as it is by ourselves, an experience we can purchase in small doses. Freed from economic and empathic restrictions, McCarthy’s neo-Sartrean figure carries this to its logical, mathematical extreme.

Inequality satisfies the uniqueness of the remainder.



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